Inside the Underground Economy of Solitary Confinement

This week, The Marshall Project published a long essay by Matthew Azzano, which was written with the support of a grant from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund.

Matthew Azzano, 24, was born and raised in Rochester, New York. After serving two years in New York prisons, he is completing a bachelor’s degree in urban planning at Buffalo State College, where he also plays on the rugby team. He enjoys exercising, cooking, and practicing Spanish. The following is a brief excerpt from the article, which can be read in full on The Marshall Project’s site.

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Any prisoner can tell you that a peculiar economy exists behind bars. Items like cigarettes serve as dollar bills in transactions involving anything from food to toilet paper. Goods are in short supply in any correctional facility, but the circumstances are especially dire for those in solitary confinement.

I became interested in how people in New York’s so-called Special Housing Units (SHUs) buy and sell their goods while I was serving a two-year sentence for burglary. In 2019, armed with a reporting grant from Solitary Watch, I interviewed 15 New York state prisoners who had spent at least one month in a SHU. I did not directly quote or identify the men I interviewed because parts of this economy are illegal. But what I learned overall is that captivity breeds impressive displays of creativity…

Commissary is extremely limited in solitary confinement. Only after many months of good behavior may a SHU prisoner gain the privilege to buy food. Even then, they are limited to small snacks. For the vast majority of people in the box, their only commissary purchases are hygiene products and stamps…

Food portions tend to be relatively small in solitary. Most of the men I interviewed said they received less food in the box than they did in GP. For example, they said they got one cup of rice instead of the usual two. To get by, they traded food off their trays. Some swapped out items they didn’t like; others bartered to support their tobacco habit.

Given that boredom is just as dangerous as hunger in solitary confinement, some of the guys used what they traded to make a confection known as a “box pie.” To prepare a box pie, a prisoner collects the white bread from his meals and pounds the slices together until they resemble the dough of a pie crust. They fill the “crust” with sweets accumulated from dinner trays and press the whole thing flat. Some use apple and banana slices, but desserts such as brownies, cakes and apple crisp are especially sought-after fillings.

Whatever you’re buying or selling, you must learn how to “fish” to participate in the solitary economy. Fishing lines are made of ripped strips of sheets, towels and clothes. With thin enough strips, you can make about 100 feet of line out of a single state-issued bedsheet. To fish, you attach the item you’re selling to the line along with a weight, such as a bar of soap. When you toss the line toward your buyer, the weight creates the momentum needed to carry your item through the air and drag it into the right cell after it lands.

Of course, commodities can fall off the line or land in places where they can’t be recovered. Arguments can ignite over accusations of theft, so you need to know who you can trust to pass on your goods. In my reporting, I heard about one guy who didn’t have any family members on the outside to help him pay for basics like toilet paper. Thanks to his cell’s central location and his good aim and trustworthiness, he was able to support himself by securing other people’s lines. It started out as something he would do to pass the time, but he ended up getting really good at it. People would look out for him, sending him items in exchange for his help.

It is difficult to fully describe the restrictive conditions in which fishing takes place. The rec pen is just a small cage, and the space between the bars is a matter of inches. In units where the bars are too tight to fit one’s hand between them, people use a “spear” to throw the line. A spear is a magazine or newspaper rolled up so tight that it glides through the air. It serves the same purpose as a weight does. For those who are not yet adept at fishing, it can take dozens of tries just to connect to someone a few cells down.

But the limitations make prisoners’ proficiency all the more fascinating. One man I interviewed described a guy on the third tier shooting a line to the ground level. He said the item landed on the floor and slid underneath his target’s door more than 100 feet away…

Read the full article on The Marshall Project’s site.

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